One of my most painful experiences happened about five years ago when I went outside to get the morning paper. It was a mild Sunday in early summer; Marc was upstairs getting ready for church. I picked up the paper and looked down to see the headlines. I’m really not sure what happened then; it was as if my body decided to mimic the angle of my head. The world tilted and I lost my balance and fell, right in the middle of our driveway. There was nothing around for me to use to help pull myself up, except for a pine tree a couple yards away.
Until that moment, I had known how difficult it was to get up from the ground—but I hadn’t known that, without a firm, elevated surface close by to use, I couldn’t get up by myself. I tried, desperately, for fifteen minutes, and I wasn’t even close to success. I finally dragged myself over to the pine tree, trying to use its scrawny, closely packed branches as leverage. Again and again I tried. Nothing.
Who doesn’t have that pitiful commercial engraved in their head? The old lady lying on the floor, weak and infirm.
“Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” It became a kind of cultural joke, a meme of impotence. And yet—there I was. Just as weak, just as infirm, just as impotent.
I started calling out for help, hoping Marc would hear, but he didn’t. After another ten minutes had passed, a neighbor finally heard me and came running. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the humiliation. I knew I was just too big for anyone to be able to pull me up, so I asked her to get Marc. He came out a few minutes later, exasperated and, in my mind’s eye at least, disgusted. I asked him to get a straight-back chair and hold onto it so I could use my arms to do the job my legs couldn’t do. The agony of forty-five minutes on the ground was over. But, my fear of falling had taken deep root in that span of time, along with the burn of shame and humiliation.
About two-and-a-half years later, my trainer went through how to get up from the floor, step by step. That sounds silly, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter was, I hadn’t just let my muscles atrophy; I had lost muscle memory as well. My routine of pulling myself up using my arms was more than a decade old, and it was all my body knew. Like a toddler figuring out how much bigger his world is when he pulls himself up and walks instead of crawls, I had to learn all over again.
When people tell me I look great, when I buy a new outfit and love the way it looks on me—that all feels wonderful. But it is nothing, nothing compared to my ability to do. To not just be slender—to be strong. To get on the floor five days a week for exercise and pick myself right back up again.
That part of my journey started with exercise. Losing weight doesn’t make you stronger; exercise makes you stronger. Regaining the ability to do things, to be an active person, means you have to work at it.
That’s an ugly truth for the many of us who hate to exercise, who don’t even consider it as part of an overall approach to losing weight. Exercise is for other people, not for the likes of us. We can crowd our heads with excuses and delaying tactics, we can promise ourselves we will start on the tomorrows that somehow remain ever a day away.
Or, we can do. We can start an exercise regime that is appropriate for our level of ability—that stretches us and makes us work without exceeding our limits. We can keep doing it, even when we hate it, for twenty-five or thirty minutes a day. When those exercises become less onerous, we can advance them and get a little stronger. We can slowly break through scar tissue, pushing just to the point of discomfort.
When I started my exercise regime, it was because I was scared of being so weak. I wanted to be able to go up a set of stairs without being short of breath. I wanted to be able to get myself off the damn ground. I never imagined that I could actually get strong, that my muscles, no matter how atrophied, could be built up again.
I never imagined how much I would be able to do—or that my life would be transformed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re physically awkward—an exercise regime isn’t a show of athletic prowess. It doesn’t matter if your starting point is standing up from a chair without using your arms. (Can’t stand up without using your arms? My starting point was getting my butt off the chair enough for my trainer to be able to slide a piece of paper under me.) It matters that you start, that you keep on doing it, that you force yourself into a routine until it finally becomes invigorating and important to you.
That plan to start exercising tomorrow? Why don’t you make that today? Right now.